Duke Magazine-May/June 2001-Conservation Versus Culture

Duke Magazine-The Culture of the Gun    
• continued from page one

The battle in Baja: some members of the local fishing community, who once harpooned turtles for food, now work with Nichols.
  The Mexican government, though, insisted that there was no longer any problem with local consumption and, therefore, no need to focus money and effort on conservation work. Nichols criss-crossed the peninsula, talking to fishermen and to members of local communities. He counted thousands of carapaces in backyards and dumps, proving that consumption remains a serious and persistent problem. This is where he realized his resource-management training at Duke would be the most beneficial.
  “Scientific research wasn’t enough,” Nichols says. “Now what we’re doing is a lot of social sorts of things, understanding the economics and policy issues as well as marine science. Marine conservation is also really about people and fishermen and impacts to the marine environment. So it ended up being an extremely useful degree to have.”
The meeting with local fishermen in Banderitas Estuary is part of his latest conservation strategy. His research there supports his belief that Banderitas is the perfect site for the first official sea-turtle reserve in Baja California, an idea he’s recently been advocating. It’s a calm, quiet arm of the bay that’s easily protected. Turtles that feed there seem to stay in the area, and it’s easily accessible to tourists. With their recently received fishing rights, the cooperative of fishermen has an incentive to begin long-term management of the region.

“I realized that this connection to the animal is one of the reasons why it’s endangered, but it’s also a tool and the reason why they will be protected, and why people will be enthusiastic about working for their recovery.”

—Wallace J. Nichols

Nichols admits that the idea of a turtle sanctuary in an area already protected by law might sound unusual to the rest of the world. In theory, all the waters off the coast of Mexico are turtle sanctuaries. The local law isn’t working, however, since there is little enforcement and follow-up. Without the communities on board, the ones that are the source of both the problem and the solution, nothing will change.
  Leaning forward toward the fishermen in the boat, hands clasped, Nichols outlines his idea to make Banderitas Estuary a turtle reserve, an area the fishermen will still be able to use but one completely safe for turtles. The thirty-four-year-old scientist has an easy smile and a slow pull to his words, but his honest enthusiasm and passion are infectious. The men are drawn in as he explains that the reserve will be the first in all of Baja California, and thus could attract international attention. He tells them that tourists who flock to the area in the later winter and spring to see gray whales and their calves might stay an extra day and go snorkeling to see turtles in an area they know is protected. These men, who know the turtles’ habits, would be the guides. He also tells them that their fish and oysters could command a higher price if they come with some sort of certification that they are grown in an ecologically sensitive manner that helps protect endangered sea turtles.
The men are interested. “I’d like to protect turtles,” says Arturo Gonzales Dominguez. “Both for my own benefit, and for the future. If we don’t protect them now, my children when they are grown won’t be able to see turtles as I have.”
  Nichols doesn’t stop at the discussion of Banderitas. He relaxes back in his chair and continues on to another aspect of his latest conservation strategy. “Did you know that sea turtles are the most important animals in Baja?” The men pause and consider his words. He tells them that there is absolutely no other animal as tied in to the life, food, culture, and ecology in the region. “Can you think of one?” he asks. They can’t. He knows he has them hooked.
  This simple statement is a carefully thought-out tactic. He says he believes if he says it enough times to enough people—“Turtles are the most important animals in the entire peninsula”—they will start repeating it. And if enough people repeat it to others, then idea will take hold.

All species of sea turtles in the world are endangered, faced with threats from fishing nets, pollution, and hunters who prize them for their shells, meat, and eggs.

After years of conducting research in Baja, and befriending fishermen and community members, Nichols has seen that is how things work. Decisions are not made in the air-conditioned offices in Mexico City, and turtles aren’t protected by the government officials who pull into town in clearly marked vehicles. Meetings take place on the side of the road, around pick-up trucks, sitting around a cooler on a boat in the estuary, and turtles either will or won’t be protected by the people who work near them every day.
  His theories on information flow in Baja are supported later that evening, when he stops by a local taco stand to pick up dinner. “Did you hear?” one man says to him. “They’re thinking of starting a turtle sanctuary in Banderitas Estuary.” Nichols simply nods and looks interested.
  It’s taken years to get people in communities around Baja to trust and accept him. When he first pulled into Puerto San Carlos four years ago, armed with a pitted pick-up truck, a research permit, and fluent Spanish, locals saw him as an odd gringo with a passion for turtles. They tolerated his questions. Nichols says it wasn’t difficult to figure out who the poachers were, that “if they know about exactly where turtles feed and what they eat and where to find them—well, these are things you know only if you spend a lot of time thinking about turtles.”
  And the locals, even the poachers, are exactly the ones he approached to learn more about Baja’s turtles. Since they’re the ones who know the most about the animals living there, Nichols saw every conversation as an opportunity to share some information about turtle biology and why the animals might disappear forever. It’s the people’s passion for sea turtles that may help the turtles survive. “Sometimes I’d look at these people and think, ‘you’re made of turtle, eating so many turtles over the years, drinking the blood, part of you is turtle protein,’ ” he says. “Instead of reacting to that in a disgusted way, I just listened. I realized that this connection to the animal is one of the reasons why it’s endangered, but it’s also a tool and the reason why they will be protected, and why people will be enthusiastic about working for their recovery.”
  Nichols says that about 25 percent of the animals he’s tagged are killed. That estimate is supported by two fishermen who started their own basic tagging system, tying fishing wire onto the shell of turtles caught accidentally before throwing them back in the water. Of the four turtles they tagged their first few weeks, one turned up eaten.


  Larry Crowder, the Stephen Toth Professor of marine biology at the Marine Laboratory in coastal Beaufort, North Carolina—a branch of the Nicholas School of the Environment and Earth Sciences—has been studying and teaching about sea turtles since the early 1980s. A University of Wisconsin doctoral student working with Crowder was trying to make sense of all the loggerhead sea-turtle population information she had collected. She turned to him because of his expertise in the field of mathematical modeling. Their collaboration, plus follow-up work by others, showed ties between loggerheads who turned up dead along South Carolina beaches and shrimp trawling. That research, in turn, led to regulations to equip trawl nets with turtle-excluder devices to prevent the animals from being inadvertently caught and drowned during shrimping activities.
  “I thought I would be in and out of sea turtles,” Crowder says. “But I haven’t been able to extract myself since.” Applying his analysis and modeling talents, he continues to co-author turtle studies. One predicted that small declines in survival rates of loggerhead adult and sub-adult females in Australia could be enough to lead to their vulnerable colony’s extinction. The study also found that programs to protect newly hatched loggerheads from early deaths should have comparatively little impact, because “survival in the first year of life is relatively less important in these long-lived and slow-maturing animals.”
  In 1999, Crowder—also a field biologist who studies estuarine-dependent fish—began co-teaching a course, “The Biology and Conservation of Sea Turtles,” during the marine lab’s summer term. The most common sea-turtle species in the waters around Beaufort are loggerheads, followed by Kemp’s ridleys. There are also Atlantic leatherbacks, “mostly offshore,” Crowder says, and green seat turtles and hawksbills that “wander around here occasionally.”
  Loggerheads are officially listed as threatened, and the rest are all considered endangered for familiar reasons: Sea-turtle eggs have been collected as a delicacy; adult sea turtles, as well as the diamondback terrapins that live in coastal marshes and lagoons, have long been trapped for cuisine such as turtle soup; and when baby turtles hatch, hungry animal predators—birds, mammals, and other marine life—are waiting to eat them at their most vulnerable stage.
  Green sea turtles may not begin reproducing until they are thirty-five or forty. Even Kemp’s ridleys, probably the shortest-lived of sea turtles, first reproduce only at age ten or twelve. That’s a lot of time to “live in a dangerous world,” says Crowder. Last August, more than 200 dead sea turtles, mostly loggerheads, washed ashore on the Outer Banks, some with netting on them.
  Today, Nichols splits his time between working in Baja and in northern California, where he writes papers and grant proposals and works for Wildcoast, the nonprofit he helped form that focuses on conservation in Baja (www.wildcoast.net). Widely recognized as the leading expert on Baja’s turtles, he frequently presents papers about his research at scientific meetings. He’s careful to thank all the fishermen, his assistants, and the people who made his work possible, which does not always sit well with some of his fellow scientists. One once congratulated him on a successful research presentation but told him he had spent too much time on the “little people.”
  These “little people” are the very people Nichols considers his colleagues. He says the best way to learn from them, and to teach them, is to do things a little bit differently from the norm. He doesn’t slide into town with shiny new equipment, drop anchor, work for a couple of weeks, and leave. Even if he had more money for research, he says, he’d rather employ more locals to conduct research and use local equipment than buy some fancy new boat.
  “These are the real heroes of sea-turtle conservation,” says Nichols. “They’re making decisions that are not popular, that are ridiculed by their families, and are really sincerely working to protect an endangered species that is food for most people. I can’t imagine what it would be like to be in a community where I grew up and go against something that’s such a deep tradition.”
  That tradition appears to be slowly changing. Only two weeks after the first meeting on the pontoon, the hundred men of the fishing cooperative called a town meeting and announced that Banderitas Estuary will be the first turtle sanctuary in all of Baja California. They even went one step further, announcing their intention to go house to house, notifying poachers—who might be friends and relatives—that poaching will no longer be tolerated in their area. Government officials and the local branch of the navy were at the meeting to back them up.
  Farther up the coast, the fishing community of Punta Abreojos is virtually a reserve, says Nichols, because they so carefully manage their fishery and have recently begun to enforce the Mexican turtle ban. Two areas on the gulf side are also being considered for future turtle sanctuaries. Nichols hopes these will be the beginning of a string of protected areas around the coast.
  But these are only four communities out of hundreds around the coast. Even if the turtles do survive, they have to swim thousands of miles back to their nesting beaches, encountering nets, fishing lines, pollution, and hunters along the way. In the face of such challenges, Nichols has one vision that keeps him going. “Sometimes I imagine being an old man and sitting around with some of these fishermen that are my age with our grandkids, and seeing some turtles swim by in a place that’s beautiful,” Nichols says. “And I think, God, that’s going to be great.” .

Graber is a freelance writer and a reporter with the National Public Radio program Living on Earth. An audio report on Nichols and his research aired on the show in March.
Jeffrey Brown, a 1997 finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, is a freelance photographer. For more information, e-mail jbrown@jeffreybrown.com.

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